In recent years, meditation has found its way into the mainstream. Having been viewed for many years as the preserve of dedicated monks and counter-culture hippies (if people thought of it at all), it’s now been embraced as a useful and productivity-boosting part of the modern world. Yet despite hundreds of articles, the growth of mindfulness apps and increasing numbers of corporate meditation programs, some of the basics of meditation still aren’t common knowledge.
This is especially true considering that it is mindfulness meditation which has gained most prominence, even becoming something of a media buzzword. Because of this, many people believe that meditation and mindfulness are interchangeable, when in fact mindfulness is just one of a myriad of practices. This means that if one kind of meditation doesn’t come naturally to you, there are others to try – here’s a short guide to the major meditation techniques.
Transcendental meditation is best known in its branded form. TM was popularised in the 1970s, with famous practitioners including The Beatles, David Lynch and other enthusiasts bringing this millennium-old practise into the modern world. However, TM does not sum up transcendental meditation in its entirety; it’s simply a consumable version of the technique which was created by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.
Transcendental meditation is part of the ancient Vedic culture of Northern India, and is a form of “focused attention” meditation. Focused attention requires its participants to focus on a particular thing, such as their breath, part of their body or external object. In the case of Transcendental meditation, people focus on a personalised mantra that’s been allocated to them by an experienced guide. This helps act as a vehicle into a physiologically restful and neurologically powerful state, that the ancient sages of India called turiya.
Loving Kindness Meditation
While transcendental meditation has its roots in India and Hinduism, Loving Kindness Meditation is a Buddhist practise that can be sourced to Theravada (which is sometimes known as “Southern Buddhism” and strongest in Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Thailand, Laos and Burma) and Tibetan traditions. As is suggested by its name, this is a meditation technique which revolves around developing compassion and cultivating love.
A person who wants to pursue Loving Kindness Meditation would sit quietly and attempt to generate feelings of kindness and benevolence. You start by focusing on yourself, establishing self-directed altruism, before extending this out to family, friends, strangers, and eventually all of humanity.
Mindfulness meditation is arguably the most famous technique. By teaching students to pay attention to the present moment through simple breathing and meditation practices, Mindfulness increases our awareness of our thoughts and feelings. This is usually achieved through an attempt to notice the things around us, such as the feeling of a breeze in our hair, sounds of distant traffic and shades of green in the trees – all acknowledged without judgement. This is known as “open monitoring” meditation.
As a simple concept, Mindfulness can be a great way to introduce people to meditation before they move on to a more structured and guided practice. It is a particularly freeform technique with an abundance of different ideas and advice on how best to go about it, so finding a teacher is important for those who want to advance.
Zen meditation has a long history, originating with Indian monk Bodhidharma in the 6th century CE and becoming established in China and Japan. It’s a simple but strict meditation, where maintaining the correct posture is vital – unlike mindfulness and transcendental meditation, which can be practiced in whatever position is most comfortable. You sit on a “zafu” (a kind of cushion) in the half lotus position, with your knees pushing into the floor, and your head pushing into the sky, with your back as straight as possible.
This is pretty uncomfortable for beginners, but it is meant to get easier as you become more flexible. Practiced with your eyes open, the meditative state of mind is achieved through the deep concentration required to maintain your posture and focus on your breathing. The Zen master, Taisen Deshimaru said: “By simply sitting, without looking for any goal or any personal benefit, if your posture, your breathing and your state of mind are in harmony, you will understand the true Zen; you will understand the Buddha’s nature.”
Yogic meditations have the added bonus of increasing flexibility and improving fitness, but may be a little less immediately accessible than other, less active, forms of meditation (especially for anyone with physical impairments). The tradition is extremely old, going back to at least 1700 BC by most estimations, and has many different lineages and forms. The yoga we recognise in the West can be as spiritual and meditative as you like, or just a form of helpful exercise – it completely depends on your preferences and which teacher you choose.
These are just a few of the many kinds of meditation out there, and with some experimentation you should be able to find the technique which suits you best.